The NATO intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance community kicked off a first-of-its-kind technical trial June 18 in Norway to help in preserving gains made during the past decade of conflict and to build on them for the future.
U.S. Air Force and Army representatives have joined their counterparts from 12 countries and seven NATO organizations for the 10-day Unified Vision 2012, Dennis Lynn, the Air Force lead and senior U.S. national representative at the trial, told American Forces Press Service.
Operating at Oerland Air Station, Norway, and at other locations in the United States and Europe, the 700 participants will be put through the paces during 27 dynamic, fast-moving vignettes, all based on real-world missions, he said.
As they marshal their full range of human and electronic intelligence capabilities, they will determine how well they identify, track and analyze threat information, explained Richard Wittstruck, chairman of NATO’s joint ISR capability group and the senior Army official at the trial.
Forming a cohesive intelligence picture is a big part of the trial, but equally important will be how easily participants can share it. “The core of Unified Vision 12 is our ability to share sensor data among the allies,” Lynn said.
Historically, he added, that’s been a challenge because of the many different systems involved, the technical challenges of processing and cataloging such a vast amount of data, and the inherent tendency of operators to “stovepipe” information to protect it.
“So it’s a very difficult thing to do, but we are slowly evolving and slowly improving our ability to do that,” Lynn said. “We still do it imperfectly, but it is better than it was 10 years ago.”
A big goal of the trial is to identify gaps in information-gathering and dissemination and to help in charting the way ahead for future technological advancements or new tactics, techniques and procedures, Wittstruck said.
Toward that goal, the Norwegian military, which is hosting Unified Vision, has gone all-out to make it as realistic and valuable as possible, he said. The Norwegians will turn on real surface-to-air missile systems so participants can attempt to geo-locate them.
A Norwegian navy frigate will participate, collaborating with ground and air assets to identify and engage targets. “That’s something we haven’t practiced a lot,” Wittstruck said. “You talk air-to-ground and ground-to-ground, but in my history of doing this for over 25 years, it is rare to see an opportunity where you have a maritime asset cooperating with air and ground, looking at the same targets and trying to build that threat envelope.”
Norway also has authorized participants to turn on active GPS jammers for part of the exercise – something impossible to do in most parts of the world, where it would interfere with commercial and industrial operations. The players will have to identify where these jammers are and whether they need to be neutralized, while conducting their own intelligence efforts using backup systems not reliant on GPS signals.
To compensate for the one drawback of the Norwegian venue – 21 hours of daily sunlight that preclude night operations – an element based at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., will prosecute targets from what’s being billed during the trial as “Forward Operating Base Alpha.”
Just as in real-world operations, the participants will encounter some curve balls, Wittstruck said. In some scenarios, the human intelligence they receive may be flawed. They could encounter “enemy” aircraft or weapons systems on the ground that turn out to be decoys with the exact same target signatures – or real systems that have been concealed by camouflage nets.
As the participants navigate these challenges, they’ll help to ensure that standard agreements in place to promote data-sharing across NATO cover new systems coming online and actually work in an operational setting, Wittstruck said. They’ll work through obstacles to sharing data that crosses classification domains – from secret to unclassified or unclassified to secret – to help maximize what can be shared.
“The big question will be, Can we touch each other in terms of data exchange so we have a composite, if not fused, picture of the situation on the same target, in the same vignette because you have given me your aspect and I have given you my aspect?” Wittstruck said. “That should heighten everyone’s situational awareness.”
He cited the many good lessons operating in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade that have improved this capability. “So the question is, How do we capture the good lessons learned and institutionalize them so we don’t have to relearn them or rediscover them in the next NATO campaign?” he said.
NATO overcame many difficulties to stand up the Afghan Mission Network so coalition members could share intelligence data in Afghanistan, Wittstruck noted. That system, which reached full operational capability only last year, helped to bridge the intelligence gap created by numerous national intelligence networks with different levels of interoperability. It allows the United States and 45 partners in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to link up over a common mission network.
“We learned so much from that network, once it was up, about the true cooperation that can take place without having a whole bunch of liaison officers sitting around a table trying to exchange the data person-to-person because they didn’t have the digital means to have a common view of all the data,” Wittstruck said.
“The Afghan Mission Network was a great step forward,” he said. “But the lesson out of that was, Do we really want to create a mission network from scratch every time we go to a new NATO campaign? And the answer is obviously not.”
Lynn recognized NATO’s growing appreciation of the need for a common ISR platform. At the recent NATO Summit in Chicago, for example, the allies announced that they had contracted for a new, NATO-owned and -operated ground surveillance system. Based on Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with advanced ground-surveillance radars, the system will enable every NATO ally to access the data collected.
“That’s going to be a big help to NATO’s joint ISR system,” said Lynn, who acknowledged that the new system won’t be operational for at least a couple of years.
Wittstruck said the aggressive 12-month planning timeline NATO adopted for Unified Vision shows its commitment to moving this process forward. “This, by far, has been the most productive year of watching the nations and the NATO agencies come together – the leadership and workforce – to rally to this,” he said. “They really are committed to the cause of getting lessons learned codified and institutionalized for future use and identifying those gaps so that we can get after them with either material, technical or non-material investments.”
Planners recognize going into the trial that not everything they put to the test is going to go as planned. “A trial can be successful even if 80 percent of the things go wrong, because you are gaining knowledge,” Lynn said. “It’s like a scientific experiment. You know it works or it doesn’t work.”
“Part of the success of this trial may be the failure of aspects of it,” Wittstruck agreed. “If we set out to do something and can’t do it and we learn something from that, we can improve NATO’s effectiveness and efficiencies moving forward, which is a success in itself.”
Lynn said he’s optimistic about the outcome. “By working with the multitude of nations we have at this trial, we expect to make real progress,” he said. “I think we can make some far-reaching improvements as we move ahead on this.”
It’s an effort he called vital to future NATO operations. “ISR is absolutely critical to fighting the modern war. You need it,” Lynn said. “So this trial will help us improve that timeliness and the availability of that data by putting it in a standard way so everyone will be able to get access to the information in some kind of central repository and be able to disseminate it in a timely way.
“The idea is you can’t wait until the next war starts,” he continued. “You need to be focused on this and continually advancing it, because this work is absolutely foundational to everything we as a coalition do.”
Wittstruck said the efforts will strengthen NATO’s ability to operate as a joint ISR community. “And if we can do that, that is a big win for NATO,” he said.
But the biggest winners, Lynn said, ultimately will be the warfighters who will use and benefit from these systems. “Too many times, somebody may have had a piece of information that would have helped another unit or another aircraft, say, out of harm’s way,” he said, “because at the end of the day, the ability to share information is about saving lives.”